This article first appeared on nypl.org on July 18, 2011:
Sci-Fi Summer: Climb Aboard the TARDIS: A Classic Doctor Who Starter Kit
Since 1963, the BBC’s sci-fi epic Doctor Who has followed the adventurous and enigmatic alien time traveler known only as the Doctor as he races through space and time and our TV screens solving problems, saving worlds, and making new friends who join him on his travels. Unfortunately, the current season is on break and won’t be back until this fall (with an episode curiously titled “Let’s Kill Hitler.”) Let’s say you’re a newer fan: someone who’s only recently gotten into the show through the 2005 revival, be it with Matt Smith, David Tennant, or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. You’ve worn out all your DVDs, commentaries and all, and the tie-in novels just aren’t coming in fast enough. Fall still isn’t here yet but you need your fix. What’s a Whovian to do?
Well, remember that bit about “since 1963?”
Yes, between then and 1989 there’s a whole 26 seasons, 155 serials, 7 Doctors, dozens of companions, and countless alien worlds’ worth of fun and adventuring in the TARDIS (also there’s the 1996 TV movie, but that’s a talk for another time). Sounds a bit overwhelming, and it is. But fear not: being a completist is not essential to following and enjoying the Classic series of Doctor Who. Still, this begs another question: where could you possibly begin? Fear not, for it is Sci-Fi Summer and the library is here to help. Here is a handy guide to recommended DVD titles for each of the first seven Doctors in circulation at the New York Public Library.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)
An Unearthly Child: Why not start where it all began? The very first serial in the world’s longest running sci-fi television series begins with the simple story of two high school teachers, Ian and Barbara, who are concerned by the unusual behavior of one of their students, a precocious girl named Susan. Visiting her address together, they discover that not only does she appear to live in a junkyard but her grandfather possesses a police telephone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Challenging his claims that the box can travel anywhere in time and space, Ian and Barbara find themselves whisked away to the stone age where a local tribe is deciding its leadership on who can make fire, and the smoke from the Doctor’s pipe has caught their eye…
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton 1966-1969)
The Mind Robber: While desperately trying to escape a volcanic eruption, the Doctor pulls a dangerous maneuver with the TARDIS that takes him and his companions, Scottish Highlander Jamie and futuristic girl genius Zoe, outside of reality itself. What lies outside of reality? Fiction. The trio must escape this fantasy land of unicorns, living toy soldiers, and some of literature’s greatest figures (Gulliver, d’Artagnan, and Rapunzel all cameo), but first they must stop the mysterious entity who wants to keep them there forever.
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee, 1970-1974)
Spearhead From Space: Forced to regenerate and exiled to Earth by his own people, the Time Lords, the Doctor lands weak and disoriented in England where he is rescued by UNIT, a secret military organization led by the Doctor’s old friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Unfortunately, the Doctor must make a fast recovery if he’s to help UNIT solve an important mystery before the shop window dummies start coming to life…
The Three Doctors: There’s trouble brewing back on the Doctor’s homeworld of Gallifrey and the Time Lords need his help. This time it isn’t a job for just one Doctor, but for three. Going against the First Law of Time, the First and Second Doctors are plucked out of their own points in time and sent to help the Third Doctor defeat Omega, a power-mad Time Lord of Gallifreyan legend. But if they’re going to fight Omega, they’ll need to stop fighting each other first.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker, 1974-1981)
Genesis of the Daleks: Since the Doctor’s second ever adventure back in 1963, the Daleks have been famous as the Whoniverse’s greatest source of destruction and villainy. Now see how they began. On the planet Skaro, a great war rages between the Kaleds and the Thals. Off in the wastelands, a disfigured but brilliant scientist named Davros has developed the ultimate weapon to help the Kaleds win the war: the Dalek. Sent by the Time Lords to destroy the abominations before their creation, the Doctor is landed with companions Sarah Jane and Harry in the middle of a battlefield and time is running out…
City of Death: Before he was famous for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams was a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. Here he lends his co-penmanship to this light-hearted romp in which the Doctor’s and fellow Time Lord Romana’s vacation in 1979 Paris is rudely interrupted by a millionaire’s plot to steal the Mona Lisa. Oh, and the fate of the human race also hangs in the balance.
The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison, 1981-1984)
The Visitation: Landing in plague-ridden England, the Doctor and his crew of three (alien aristocrat Nyssa, number-savvy street urchin Adric, and headstrong flight attendant Tegan) soon discover that they’re not the only recent extraterrestrial visitors to the area. An alien prison escapee has developed a secret laboratory and plans to steal the Doctor’s TARDIS, but not before he abducts Adric and Tegan and forces them to help him create a super-plague to unleash upon the world.
The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker, 1984-1986)
The Mark of the Rani: Dragged to Industrial-Revolution-era Earth by a strange distortion in time, the Doctor and companion Peri are quickly drawn into a mystery of miners who have suddenly turned violent, running around and destroying machinery. The source of the trouble seems to be the local bathhouse where a morally questionable Time Lady scientist called the Rani has made her base. To make matters worse, the Master is back and wants to recruit the Rani to his never-ending battle with the Doctor.
The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, 1987-1989)
Survival: In the aptly-titled and, at the time, unexpected finale of Classic Who, the Doctor takes his young companion Ace back to her home town to check on her old friends. Unfortunately, most of them have mysteriously disappeared. It may have something to do with the giant horse-mounted cheetah people who can appear and vanish at will, or it could be the Master at large again and slowly turning into one of the cheetah people himself…